Alumni Abroad: The future is equal
Inequality begins young. Meghan Campbell learned this at an early age when she realised that not all little girls, like her, were encouraged to pursue interests in math and science.
Decades later, Campbell [LLB/08] has turned this schoolyard discovery into a legal career which has taken her from Robson Hall to Oxford. Now, as a lecturer in law at the University of Birmingham, she is exploring how the international human rights system can best respond to gender inequality and poverty.
To mark Canada’s inaugural Gender Equality Week, UM Today spoke to Campbell from across the pond.
UM TODAY: WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO ENGLAND TO STUDY AND THEN TEACH?
CAMPBELL: When I graduated from Robson Hall, I worked as a lawyer for the Province of Manitoba. Then I started to get intellectual itchy feet. As a lawyer, you have to play by the rules—and this can require a lot of ingenuity and creativity—but as an academic lawyer you can think deeply about the rules are constructed and propose new rules.
I decided to do an LLM at the University of Edinburgh for the adventure of studying overseas. I really enjoyed taking a comparative perspective on gender equality and wanted to continue with my studies. I decided to apply to University of Oxford, so that on my death-bed, I would know that at least I had tried to go to one of the foremost universities. I was incredibly fortunate to be accepted to do a DPhil at the University of Oxford under the supervision of professor Sandra Fredman.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN GENDER EQUALITY?
My interest started early when my parents encouraged me to do well in math and other subjects at school and only in reading did I realize that the world was deeply structured around gender power imbalances.
At law school, we were taught Gosselin v Quebec, where the Supreme Court of Canada held that drastically reducing social assistance benefits to those under 30 was not in violation of the right to equality in The Charter. This seemed intuitively wrong. Human rights are for everyone, not only the wealthy and the privileged. The interpretation and understanding of human rights needs to account for different experiences, including how poverty acts as obstacle to equality. The professors at Robson Hall were incredibly supportive and encouraged me to follow this intuition into legally sophisticated arguments.
I initially wanted my doctoral studies to focus on the role of the right to equality in redressing poverty. Professor Fredman channelled this idea to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. And this sparked my career in studying gender equality and international human rights law.
THOSE ARE BOTH VERY BROAD AREAS. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ADVANTAGES OF HAVING ONE INFLUENCE THE OTHER?
A good example is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). A majority of the world’s states have committed CEDAW so at the international level, states have a legal obligation to eliminate discrimination and achieve women’s equality in broad areas of life including civil, political, economic, social and cultural. The UN human rights accountability system develops the legal obligations and provides best practice guidance to the world’s state. The Committee that monitors CEDAW has been influential. It’s guidance on gender-based violence has been adopted by apex courts all over the world including India and the European Court of Human Rights.
Unlocking the potential of CEDAW to redress women’s poverty therefore provides a blue print that can influence states all over the world and marks a path forward for using human rights to tackle women’s poverty.
YOUR RECENT RESEARCH HAS FOCUSED A LOT ON THIS AREA; CAN YOU TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE AVENUES YOU’RE EXPLORING ON THE ISSUE OF WOMEN’S POVERTY?
I just finished an article advocating that rural and northern life should be included as a ground of discrimination under The Charter. This could have a significant impact on women in Canada and around the world, as the empirical evidence shows that rural women are more disadvantaged than urban women and urban and rural men. Including rural and northern life as a ground of discrimination can empower rural women to hold the government to account for laws and policies that perpetuate rural disadvantage.
My next research project is focusing on how the duty of cooperation contained in core UN human rights treaties can redress the extraterritorial aspects of poverty. The acts and omissions of states can perpetuate poverty far beyond their borders. There is very little accountability for this cause of poverty. States have agreed to cooperate to realize socio-economic rights but this legal obligation has been overlooked in the evolution of human rights law. As women disproportionately rely on socio-economic rights, understanding how the duty of cooperation can strengthen their protection, this project has strong implications for the future protection of women’s rights.
GIVEN CANADA’S HISTORICAL TIES TO ENGLAND, HAVE YOU FOUND THAT THERE ARE SIMILARITIES IN THE WAY GENDER INEQUALITY IS BEING ADDRESSED BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES? ARE THERE DIFFERENCES?
There are marked similarities between the two countries as both are grappling with women’s disproportionate amount of unpaid care work, unequal pay, gender-based violence and high rates of poverty. Both countries have an active civil society committed to improving women’s lives and the governments in both countries are pursuing innovative methods to redress these inequalities including mandatory pay transparency and inquiries into violence against women.
The biggest differences between the U.K. and Canada in protecting women’s rights are due to the different constitutional structure. The U.K. does not have a codified constitution. The constitution is spread among different pieces of legislation and constitutional conventions. As a result, the courts do not have the power to strike down legislation. Instead, the UK courts declare that the legislation is incompatible with the human rights legislation and the impetus then shifts to Parliament to correct this incompatibility. In Canada, the right to equality is entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and courts can strike down laws that violate women’s rights to equality. So the biggest differences are more in terms of legal structure and judicial review of women’s rights than the substantive content of gender equality.